Frontier Editor: Orion Clemens (1825-1897)

Though he’s often overshadowed by his younger brother Samuel, Orion Clemens had a colorful and varied career that included agriculture, journalism, and politics on the frontier of the United States. He was the eldest of seven children, though only he, Samuel, and their sister Pamela survived to adulthood. The Clemens family moved from Tennessee to Hannibal, Missouri, in 1839, where Orion worked in the general store. As a young man, he moved to St. Louis and began to study law.[1. Apparently the law education didn’t “take”; Samuel Clemens wrote to his mother and sister in 1875, “If he were packed and crammed full of law, it would be worthless lumber to him, for his is such a capricious and ill-regulated mind that he would apply the principles of law with no more judgment than a child of ten years.” (The Complete Letters of Mark Twain, Sunday 1875)]

Clemens was never to establish himself in one location or profession for long. In 1850, he moved back to Hannibal and bought the Hannibal Journal, whose name he changed to the Western Union, and then back to the Hannibal Journal in 1852. This paper would print the first published work of the author “Mark Twain,” who was, of course, Orion’s younger brother Samuel. But the paper was unable to sustain itself, and in 1853 it folded, and both Samuel and Orion Clemens went out to look for a new career.

Clemens moved to Iowa, first Muscatine and then Keokuk, where he took up work as a printer in 1854 (though not a newspaperman).  In 1860, he was appointed Secretary of the Territory of Nevada, and once again he brought his younger brother along for the journey. (This journey, loosely construed, would appear as Roughing It.) Orion was a popular political figure in Nevada Territory, especially after avoiding a border dispute during his tenure as interim governor.

In 1864, Clemens’s young daughter Jennie died. Later that year, Clemens unsuccessfully ran for assemblyman in the state legislature of Nevada. By 1866, the Clemens family left Nevada for the east coast. They moved around quite a bit and Clemens tried out a number of occupations. By 1875, he was attempting to be a chicken farmer, though with little success. He continually went back to law and journalism, but he was never able to make them profitable.

In 1880, Orion Clemens wrote an autobiography, but the manuscript was somehow lost after he wrote it. Thus, we don’t know nearly as much about his life as we might. Much of what we do know of him is from Samuel Clemens’s writings. Orion Clemens’s relationship with his brother was a fraught one. Samuel Clemens found his brother flighty, unsettled, and incapable of real thought. Orion’s successful tenure as secretary/governor of Nevada seems to belie these evaluations. It does seem likely that Orion’s continual failures, and perhaps the loss of his daughter, made him less stable than Samuel Clemens apparently wanted. Nevertheless, Samuel described Orion as having a generous spirit, an apt conclusion since for the first half of Orion’s life, he was supporting Samuel’s own literary ventures. [2. Ibid.]


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